John O’Donohue on the Mystery and Wonder of Existence

Our existence is a mystery. We place so much energy towards understanding the universe in which we live, we often forget to step out of that frame and wonder at the fact that we are here at all. Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue begins his book of Celtic wisdom, Anam Cara, with the opening line: 

“It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone.”

Indeed, if you stop and wonder about existence for too long, the mystery of it will occasionally nip at your heels, sometimes when you least expect it. Perhaps you have been unfortunately confronted with the tenuous nature of existence, such as a near death experience or a loved one unexpectedly leaving this world. This causes you to suddenly see existence in a different light.

Thankfully, it is not just death that can create such a state of mind. Some experiences can awaken our slumbering self from the mindless activities in which we daily engage; witnessing a beautiful natural area, experiencing a moving piece of music, observing a birth, or simply one human being showing kindness to another. 

O’Donohue addressed this in his posthumously published book Walking in Wonder, a collection of mostly radio interviews,  

“The worst and most frightening moment is the day that your mind really wakes up and that you suddenly know that everything that you think, everything that you feel, everything that you know and everything that you are connected with is somehow dependent on you awareness and your consciousness.”

This goes straight to the heart of the mystery, that the awareness of yourself and the perception of everything is entirely dependent on you. The fact that we are in many ways alone in and responsible for our journey can be a startling notion. We keep special people close to us, huddling together in the light of the campfire, yet there remains a degree of separation. From an On Being radio interview with Krista Tippet in 2008:

“We know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person. And it’s amazing, here I am sitting in front of you now, looking at your face and you’re looking at mine and yet neither of us have ever seen our own faces.” 

Understandably, it is these kinds of jolting observations that can cause one to avoid engaging with the mystery. A mystery is at best uncomfortably ambiguous, and is at worst terribly unsettling. Uncertainty is no fun, but it is here that we have a choice. 

What will you allow mystery to inspire within you? It can be fear, it can be avoidance, or for O’Donohue, it can inspire wonder. To wonder is to be passionately curious, moving towards something with active investigation rather than retreating.  It carries a positive connotation. There is still mystery in wonder, but it is something to be embraced. Again, from Walking in Wonder: 

“One of the greatest sins is [to not] have a reverence always for the immensity that is inside of you.”

The immensity that is inside of you. What a thrilling way to view our very mysterious existence! It might be overwhelming to think of our existence as being solipsistic, unable to completely share our experiences with others, but that means the experience belongs wholly to you. It is yours and yours alone. 

“You look at humans walking around on the streets, in houses, in churches, out in the fields, and you realize that each one of these creatures is carrying within herself or himself a whole harvest of experience.”

This is who you are. You are the perceiver. An entire universe dwells within you. You are the harvester of experience, like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, you see and experience all. The whole world exists because you perceive it; the trees, the wind, the people you love. You are the morning! You are the universe! You are existence! 

Each person is a complete story – from beginning to end – and has the opportunity to add their voice to the chorus of humanity. It is a tragedy when someone dies. Death is part of the complete human experience and it is important to honor that aspect of the journey, but the death of an individual is the obliteration of a universe. If we do not sit at the table and share in that person’s harvest of experience, we have missed out and are poorer for it. From Walking in Wonder:

“One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them.” 

Here O’Donohue addresses an individual’s authenticity. If we are the harvesters of our personal story, then it should be the product of genuine experience. One of the negative consequences of running from or ignoring the wonder is we often fall into the comfort of societally provided roles, sacrificing unique experience for ready-made constructs. 

Yes, we may have common experiences and concerns, even very dramatic ones, but the reflection of the experience is unique to you. This reflection helps bring you into being. This is not an argument for individualism. The beauty of the mystery of existence with others is that we take our individual experiences and create a cohesive existence together. 

We enter this being-ness by claiming meaningful time to reflect on experience driven by wonder. It is not something that happens by accident. We must occasionally carve out time in our lives to sit down, clear the mind, and explore our inner-landscape. This is often done best through writing, as the creative activity will reveal unexpected insights. From Walking in Wonder:

“So we are always actually in permanent dialogue with ourselves, and therefore solitude is a very rich time. It is the purification of that dialogue.”

Your mind is in constant dialogue. Frustratingly, sometimes it just will not stop dialoguing! By taking a concerted look at the mystery of being and experience through writing, which memorializes your thought, rather than the rabbit trail chasing nature of our mind, will help form that dialogue into something helpful; to not fear of our very strange existence, but to be a dance partner with it.

It is indeed strange to be here. The fact that we exist at all is existentially spectacular. But we need not be strangers to ourselves and the wonder of our existence. We should run towards it and bring ourselves into being by acknowledging the immensity within each of us and others.   

Compliment this essay with another similar topic To Live is to Live Passionately or anything from the Being and Existence category.

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One thought on “John O’Donohue on the Mystery and Wonder of Existence”

  1. I appreciate where this perspective is trying to take me. The question is whether or not my self centered core will allow my curiosity to gain traction and travel to new places.

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